The Jewish Lobby

Mideast Matters

The Jewish Lobby

By Neve Gordon


A few of you here
don’t like the Jews and I know why,” Jerry Falwell declared in a 1979 I Love
America rally. In 1993, he made a disparaging reference to “the little Jewish lawyer”
who was handling a lawsuit that challenged the eligibility of Falwell’s Liberty
University to receive state aid. The Anti-Defamation League has documented these comments
in a report on the religious right and concluded that such statements “dehumanize

Yet despite his
anti-Semitism, the governing Likud party in Israel claims that Falwell is an Israeli ally.
In 1980, he was awarded Israel’s Jabotinsky medal, and some time afterwards he
received an airplane from the Israeli government as a token of its gratitude for his
long-standing support. Interestingly, Falwell was also the first person Prime Minister
Netanyahu met in his latest visit to this country. This is not so surprising considering
that Falwell’s bigotry and his assault on pluralism and tolerance in the U.S.
mirrors, in a somewhat twisted manner, Netanyahu’s intolerance; which is supported by
numerous groups within the American Jewish lobby.

January 1998 visit in many ways exposed the controversy within the Jewish lobby. One could
not help but notice the ad war in major U.S. newspapers like the New York Times  and Washington Post. Millions of dollars
were spent. One group within the Jewish lobby challenged Clinton to take a pro-active
stance in the peace process, another insisted that he should not pressure Netanyahu, while
still another betrayed a message of thinly veiled racist hostility towards Palestinians.
Although over 50 percent of the ads were against any form of compromise with the
Palestinians, such a trend does not reflect the American Jewish opinion which is, in the
main, for concessions. The Jewish Weekly’s Larry Cohler explains that many of
the hard-line ads are placed by wealthy individuals who head “front”
organizations that lack popular membership.

The debate in the
Jewish lobby revolves around two central issues: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and
religious pluralism. Mark Rosenblum from the Jewish lobby group Peace Now believes that
the two are connected. “There is an empirical overlap between those who oppose the
peace process and those who believe in social coercion concerning questions of faith,”
he says; “Israel’s peace and its religious openness are both contingent on
democratic forces.” Netanyahu’s decision to invite the evangelist to be the
keynote speaker at his greeting rally is testimony that, like Falwell, the prime minister
has no use for tolerance or religious pluralism.

J. J. Goldberg,
author of Jewish Power, explains the controversy in slightly different terms. He
claims that the debate over the peace process can be divided between those who think that
a conflict must be won and those who think that a conflict must be resolved. Netanyahu is
on the side of those who think that a conflict must be won. He believes that giving the
Palestinians political freedom is a compromise Israel should not make; autonomy over civil
institutions like education and health is one thing, a state is another. The prime
minister therefore rejects the Oslo agreement which implicitly recognizes the Palestinian
right to self-determination, a notion that amounts to statehood.

Within the American
Jewish community, however, Netanyahu’s view is in the minority. According to Tom
Smerling from the Israel Policy Forum (IPF), an organization that conducts regular polls
within the Jewish community, 70 percent of Jews “express strong support for the Oslo
accords” and want the Clinton administration to take a pro-active stance to move it

Despite the
evidence that American Jews are pro-Oslo, most Jewish organizations from the center to the
extreme right support Netanyahu’s approach. The Smithsonian’s decision to cancel
a conference discussing Israel’s 50th anniversary sheds light on the struggle between
the different Jewish camps. Despite the fact that the conference was organized by the New
Israel Fund, a progressive Jewish organization which is committed to strengthening Israel
as a social democracy, Congressperson Michael Forbes (R-NY) opposed it. In a letter to the
Smithsonian, he claimed the conference would “heap unfair and one-sided abuse on
America’s most trusted ally.” The Smithsonian bowed to his charges; Forbes sits
on the House Appropriation Committee which determines the Smithsonian’s budget.

“I was among
those who persuaded Forbes to take a stand on the matter,” Morton Klein said over the
phone. Klein is currently at the helm of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), the
oldest Jewish organization in the United States, which in the past years has been coopted
by extremists, some of whom have deep pockets. In the recent elections for the World
Zionist Congress, ZOA received a meager 2.9 percent of the vote. Yet, despite its lack of
popular support within the Jewish community, ZOA continues to make its case very noisily.
During a two-week period in January, ZOA placed three full-page ads in the New York
—at an average cost of $70,000 a page.

“Arafat is a
killer, a killer” Klein yells less than a minute after we begin talking. “He has
given a green light to terrorists and has praised suicide bombers. He hasn’t done
anything to obliterate the infrastructure of the Hamas. Arafat is one of the most evil men
of the 20th century.” Like Falwell, Klein has a Manichean view of the world. Israelis
represent the children of light while the Palestinians are the children of darkness; the
conflict is presented as a zero-sum game which excludes any possibility of compromise.

 ZOA opposes Oslo and, according to University of
Notre Dame political scientist Alan Dowty, it has used three tactics in an effort to
undermine the peace process. First, it has insisted that the U.S. embassy be moved from
Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. Second, it has condemned U.S. troop deployment on the Golan
Heights. This is an interesting tactic since, according to Dowty, no one has seriously
suggested that the U.S. actually deploy any troops. Finally, ZOA has tried to stop U.S.
assistance to the Palestinian Authority.

Following the
September 1993 Rabin-Arafat handshake, Israeli politicians familiar with the occupied
territories’ dilapidated infrastructure understood that the new authority would have
to invest billions of dollars in order to create a sustainable economy. Rabin recognized
that poverty can lead to unrest and therefore asked other countries to contribute.
Forty-three countries pledged $2 billion to support the fledgling Palestinian Authority,
of which one-fourth would come from the U.S.

ZOA opposed the
effort and lobbied Congress in order to prevent the transfer of U.S. funds. Consequently,
on July 29, 1994, Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Spector and Alabama Democrat Richard
Shelby managed to insert an amendment which hindered the transfer of money to the
Palestinian Authority. The Administration opposed it, but to no avail.

ZOA and other
extreme groups are not the only organizations that object to Oslo. AIPAC (American Israel
Public Affairs Committee), the most powerful group within the Jewish lobby, is also
against the peace agreement. More significantly, there appears to be a link between ZOA
and AIPAC. It is highly unlikely that Senator Specter who has received $298,623 from AIPAC
“subsidiaries” since 1980, and Senator Shelby who has received $135,825 since
1984 would have initiated the amendment without receiving a “green light” from

AIPAC is a “middle
of the road” Jewish organization with an annual budget of about $15 million, five or
six registered lobbyists, and a staff of around 150 people. Similar to other lobbying
groups, AIPAC’s major objective is to pressure members of Congress to vote according
to its recommendations, helping to re-elect incumbents who have a “good” voting
record, and “punishing” those who don’t by funding an electable opponent.

Like a parent
company, AIPAC has several “subsidiaries.” It functions as an umbrella
organization for many of the pro-Israel PACs, some of which hide their identity by
choosing names that conceal their goals—Americans for Better Citizenship is one such
example. In a 1987 article, The Wall Street Journal<D> reported that many of
the PACs “which draw money from Jewish donors and operate under obscure sounding
names—are operated by AIPAC officials or people who hold seats on AIPAC’s two
major policy-making bodies.” Richard Curtiss, author of Stealth PACs<D>
claims that in 1988, “three candidates each received more than $200,000 from
pro-Israel PACs and four other candidates received more than $100,000, 10 to 20 times more
than candidates are permitted by law to accept from any single special interest PAC.”
In 1990, some 50 pro-Israel PACs gave a total of $4,948,934 to federal candidates, while
in comparison PACs opposed to gun control gave a mere $914,000, and those on both sides of
the abortion issue gave $747,000.

Goldberg notes that
although the majority of Jews vote for Democratic candidates, by 1996 “Jewish PAC
money was going to Republicans over Democrats by a six-to-four margin.” This
incongruity is reinforced by a more troubling discrepancy: namely, that AIPAC does not
represent its constituents’ views on questions concerning peace in the Middle East.
Following the 1992 changing of the guard in both the White House and the Israeli Knesset,
AIPAC elected a Democrat, Steven Grossman, to lead the organization. In Jewish Power,
Goldberg argues that despite the change in leadership, AIPAC continued to be controlled by
the gang-of-four—Larry Weinberg, Robert Asher, Edward Levy, and Mayar Mitchell, all
past presidents of the organization. All four, Goldberg says, oppose the Oslo agreement,
and have lobbied Congress to obstruct the peace accord “and the American initiatives
that were meant to back it up. When “Grossman convened the officers’ group to
discuss how AIPAC could block the obstructionists, the four simply over-ruled him,”
Goldberg writes. Grossman was silenced because he believes that peace in the Middle East
entails territorial concessions by Israel and self-determination for Palestinians.

Now that Netanyahu
is in control the disagreement within AIPAC seems to have dissolved, resulting in the
adoption of the prime minister’s agenda. In a January 1998 issue of the Near East
, AIPAC published a detailed article entitled “The Year in Review.”
Concealed in seemingly impartial language, the editors fully appropriate Netanyahu’s
line, while rationalizing the decision to support all of the prime minister’s
policies by claiming that “Netanyahu’s Likud [is] undergoing an extraordinary
ideological transformation.” It almost appears as if AIPAC’s editors want the
reader to think that Netanyahu is a dove, maybe even a socialist. Yet Netanyahu’s
primary objective from day one has been to undermine Oslo, and most Israeli analysts
believe that he has succeeded.

best known slogan—Arafat has given terrorists the “green light”—has
been used over and over as an excuse not to abide by the Oslo agreement. AIPAC has bought
this line as have several influential figures within the Clinton administration and
Congress. Nonetheless, this slogan is entirely spurious. The Hamas, after all, succeeded
in perpetrating attacks no less lethal before Oslo when Prime Minister Shamir, not Arafat,
was in “full control.”

Peace Now are all members of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.
Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chair of the organization, states emphatically that he represents
the Jewish voice in this country. While the Conference is in favor of peace, he says, it
is by no means committed to the Oslo agreements. Unlike the Jewish community which he
claims to represent, Hoenlein prefers to speak of peace in abstract terms. He seems to
have forgotten that everyone can support abstract peace—even the fascist Rabbi Kahne

view explains the lack of vision of the Conference of Presidents. The organization is
abandoning its constituency and is urging an agenda inimical to Israeli democracy. When
asked about religious pluralism, Hoenlein asserts that since the Conference is an umbrella
organization “it doesn’t have a view on the matter.” Considering that close
to 85 percent of the Jews in this country are adamantly against the ultra-orthodox
monopoly over questions of conversion in Israel, Hoenlein’s answer is extremely
equivocal. I also learn from Hoenlein that “Netanyahu has a right to meet Falwell,”
and that “people have a right to call Arafat Hitler.”

Fortunately, an ad
hoc lobbying group called Beit Shalom—meaning house of peace—was recently formed
by 16 Jewish organizations which united to offer an alternative voice. One of the
founders, Gavri Bar-Gil, says that the dominant lobbies do not represent the majority of
American Jews and this is the reason that several progressive groups have come together.
Unlike AIPAC, Beit Shalom does not lobby by distributing funds to political candidates,
but uses an action alert network which generates faxes and phone calls from members to
decision makers. Their approach is more grassroots: “Its not only that we don’t
have the money to fund campaigns,” Bar-Gil says, “but that funding candidates is
part of a political culture with which we disagree.”

Beit Shalom is
attentive to the views of the Jewish community and represents a large segment of it. It is
attempting to challenge the right-wing Jewish organizations and the Israeli government
insofar as they deviate from the road to peace and undermine religious pluralism. Harold
Shapiro, who represents the Education Fund for Israeli Civil Rights and Peace in Beit
Shalom, believes that for many Jews the term pro-Israel “can no longer mean blindly
following the policies of the Israeli government.” Jerry Falwell, says Shapiro, is
not pro-Israel no matter what he says about Israel. Shapiro argues that “an integral
part of being pro-Israel includes taking an ethical stance for peace and pluralism which
is antithetical to Falwell’s worldview.” Shapiro does not hesitate to criticize
Israel’s decision to continue building settlements in the occupied territories, its
use of torture or the provocative opening of the Jerusalem tunnel last year. He also avers
that all strings of Judaism—reform, conservative, reconstruction, and orthodox—should
be treated equally in Israel. “It is not only about democratic principles of
tolerance and pluralism,” Shapiro says, “but foremost it’s a question of
Israel’s future, a future that will enable the people of Israel to live in peace with
their neighbors.”

“Like other
Jewish organizations,” Shapiro adds, “We, too, are Zionists, we believe in a
Jewish homeland. We also believe that just like the Israelis who will be celebrating
Israel’s 50th anniversary this May, the Palestinians deserve self-determination. They
too have a right to a state of their own.” Shapiro recognizes that in order to
achieve peace one has to compromise. “Questions concerning pluralism and tolerance
are integral, of course, to the current debate within the Jewish lobby,” he says,
“but let us not forget what is at stake. When a people are denied political freedom
and a small minority determines who is a Jew then justice is being sacrificed, no more…
no less.”        Z